The right to life of climate deniers, children in poverty, and future generations
A critical evaluation of the deleted and withdrawn 2012 text "Death penalty for global warming deniers?" 


Richard Parncutt 

February 2017, revised October 2019

Further information in German: link

rp

In the last days of 2012, sensationalist media reported that I had "called for" the death penalty for (influential) climate deniers. Those who had actually read my internet blog knew that was not true. But that didn't stop the deniers distorting my message beyond recognition. After all, that's what deniers do. Astonishingly, the media listened to the deniers.

If the media had reported that
then people might have begun to understand.

My text was not perfect, but it did attract attention to a neglected issue that is crucial for the survival of humanity. Meanwhile, with every passing year, humanity is inching closer to the ultimate cliff of self-destruction and extinction. The probability of failure is rising with every year of missed opportunities. 

Those who don't believe that human self-destruction is possible or imminent will not understand the following text. If you fall into that category (which is likely, because almost everyone is acting as if they do), please first visit this link or this and read what the science of climate change has been telling us for decades.

The main point

If you are still reading, welcome and thank you for your patience. Let me first try to express what I believe is the most important point of all:

Human lives are the most valuable thing that we know. Every human life has the same value. This is true regardless of anything else, including cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability--even guilt/innocence.

It follows that matters of life and death are of primary importance.

These points should be obvious, of course. Almost everyone can agree with them. The question then is how to take these points seriously. How to put them into practice. If we actually do that, the implications are enormous.

The most important issue in climate change is not its effect on the economy (profits, jobs and so on). It is not even the effect on irreplaceable ecosystems such as ancient forests or coral reefs. Those things are enormously valuable, of course, but they are not the most valuable thing. The most important issue for us as humans is the number of people who in the future will die prematurely as a result of climate change.

It is tempting to claim that the natural ecosystems of the earth are just as valuable as humans, or even more so. From that viewpoint it would not be so bad if humans went extinct but plenty of other species survived. I know that many people are thinking this way, but I am not one of them. Instead, I feel a deep allegiance to my own species, and I believe that everyone involved in the struggle to save global climate ultimately feels the same. All of us humans (even the most extreme "eco-warriors") have a deep and undeniable bias toward our own species. If confronted with a choice between saving a human and saving a representative of another species, we will always choose the human. We cannot reasonably claim, for example, that the Amazon rainforest is more valuable than the people who live there, except insofar as all of humanity depends on the Amazon rainforest. For reasons of this kind, I will focus here on the value of human lives and assume that ecosystems are also enormously valuable to the extent that we humans cannot live without them. For that reason alone, the legal work on ecocide by Polly Higgins and others is enormously valuable and should find its way into every national legal system and indeed every constitution. For those who find my human-centered approach arrogant or species-ist, please accept my apologies. I am aware of the problem and respect your viewpoint.

Our emissions are causing the deaths of future people. In other words, we are killing future people with our emissions. This is the naked truth that almost no-one has the courage to state. l am using the word "kill" in the everyday neutral sense of ending a life, regardless of the presence or absence of malicious intent, and regardless of any awareness of the consequences of the actions that cause the death.

Killing, in this neutral sense, is the main issue, and it should be the main thing that we talk about when we talk about climate change. If we want the killing to stop, we have to think of effective and appropriate strategies to stop it. If we talk merely about reducing emissions, for whatever reason (such as preserving arctic ice, or future quality of life in rich countries), all the time carefully avoiding any mention of the main issue, we are unlikely to succeed.

My personal perspective, and the role of aviation

For many years, I flew to and from Australia every 1-2 years, from Europe or North America. I had no idea that my travel was causing future deaths, but it was. Every time a passenger jet flies to a distant destination, a fraction of a future person is killed. The fuel burned by a typical passenger jet during a few long-distance return flights is enough to cause the death of one future person
(more).

Until about 2000, I was naively enjoying traveling wherever I wanted to or could afford. I really love to travel! During the next ten years or so, I realised that flying could have serious consequences, but I was not yet ready to face the truth, namely that it is causing future deaths. Since about 2010, the fatal consequences of burning large amounts of fossil fuels have been clear to me. It is probably also clear to most of my academic colleagues, family members, and friends. Many of them are still flying wherever they want, or so it seems, although they belong to the best-informed people.

In 2014, I decided never again to fly to an academic conference unless invited. Just recently (late 2019) I decided never to fly again except in an emergency. Never. I have many dear family members and friends in Australia some of whom I may never see again--although I am seriously considering taking the train from Europe to Shanghai, followed by sailing ship, after I retire. But it is obviously even more important to reduce the future impact of climate change, which will affect those family members and friends much more than not seeing me. Hardly anyone is prepared to make that kind of comparison, but it is surely obvious and important. Incidentally, I am not  sure what I mean by "emergency"--but if it ever happens it will probably be a matter of life and death.

Some people will object to this argument, claiming that aviation represents only 2% of global emissions. That is a very misleading statement. First, aviation has been growing steadily for decades and now contributes about 3% of global CO2. Second, the contribution of aviation to global warming is at least twice that figure (i.e., more than 6%) due to the effect of other greenhouse gases and their complex interactions with the atmosphere. Third, only a small proportion of all people ever fly (less than 10%). For those people, flying represents a large part of their carbon footprint--typically about half. During the 1990s and 2000s, flying presumably represented more than half of my personal carbon footprint. That is probably still true for many academics and business people. Fourth, aviation is steadily growing, with no end in sight. There is no realistic sustainable alternative. For the next few decades at least, the best way to reduce aviation emissions will be to reduce aviation. Flying, in short, is a big deal.

The main way people in rich countries can reduce their emissions is by not flying, driving, eating meat, or having children. For these reasons, I don't own a car and mainly use a bicycle for travel around town. I go to conferences and holidays on trains and buses. I don't have any meat in my fridge at home, although I do occasionally eat some (mainly chicken or fish). I am interested in the political question of reducing birth rates both in rich countries (where each additional person adds an enormous amount of CO2 to the atmosphere during her or his life) and developing countries (where the birth rate is sometimes still far too high--a problem that can be solved by alleviating poverty and improving education for both girls and boys).

Please join me. It's easier than you think. If you lose friends, you will gain more.

Denial

There are many kinds of climate denial. We are all climate deniers to the extent that we are not talking directly about the fatal consequences of our personal emissions. Hardly anyone is prepared to talk openly about the future deaths that we are causing. The taboo is almost universal. In that sense, almost everyone is a denier.

If we love our children, we have to
stop pretending this problem does not exist. We have to address it directly, and decide solve it. We have to start an open discussion. We have to admit that we, the citizens of the rich countries, are killing both current and future people, mainly in poor countries.

In the neutral sense just described, the word "kill" is appropriate for this discussion, because it describes directly and exactly what we are doing. We know that our activities are causing future premature deaths, but we are continuing with those activities (driving cars, flying in airplanes, eating meat, having children, voting for the wrong political parties, and so on) as if we did not know.

Climate change, therefore, is not primarily a question of physics, chemistry, and biology. Nor is it primarily a question of economics and the natural environment. Climate change is primarily a question of life and death for millions of people. It is primarily a legal and ethical issue. When this message gets through, we might finally see significant progress toward a global solution.

The role of law

The traditional method of stopping killing, as applied for almost all humanity's history and still considered appropriate by roughly half of the human population, is to identify the people who are primarily responsible, and kill them. In other words, the death penalty, also called capital punishment. That this method is contradictory, is obvious: you don't stop a culture of killing by reinforcing it. You don't stop a culture of anything by reinforcing it.

The death penalty is relevant for this discussion because, as I argued in the previous section,  climate change is primarily about killing. That is the most important problem that we need to solve. The main, overarching question that we need to answer is this: How do we stop people killing each other?

One important step would be to stop the death penalty universally. Of course this is crucial, and I personally will never stop fighting for it. As my 2012 paper clearly showed, there is no conceivable situation in which the death penalty might be justified--not even causing the deaths of a million people. The wild discussion that followed the discovery of my blog showed that an enormous number of people agree that the death penalty is never justified. In fact, my paper may have helped many people to make up their mind about that issue. Perhaps many climate deniers changed their mind about the death penalty. If so, that would have been big progress, even if they did not change their mind about climate.

There are many other questions to answer if we honestly want to stop people killing each other. How do we stop the international arms trade? How do we close the international tax havens, which are known to be important drivers of poverty in developing countries? How do we stop the exploitation of developing countries by multinational corporations?

Of these issues, stopping the death penalty is not the most important, because the number of people who die prematurely in connection with the death penalty (perhaps a few thousand every year) is much smaller than other anthropogenic death rates -- people who die prematurely as result of human actions. The number of people being killed in violent conflict is much higher. The number dying in connection with poverty is higher still. Every year, about ten million people die prematurely in connection with preventable poverty. This enormously shocking death toll is as a consequence of human greed and the failure of governments to fairly regulate the global economic system. In addition, human greenhouse-gas emissions are killing about ten million future people every year (more). Altogether, therefore, human actions are effectively putting roughly 20 million people per year on death row.

Allow me to repeat that point for fast readers who may have missed it. Our emissions are putting untold millions of people on death row. Take Bangladesh for example. The probability that a child in that country will die in connection with climate change is now roughly 50%, by which I mean much more than 10% and much less than 100%
(more). The probability that a prisoner on death row in any country will be executed is also very roughly 50%, because sentences are often changed to life imprisonment. Moreover, prisoners on death row often wait many years for execution. The difference between the two cases is astonishingly small. Our emissions are truly putting untold millions of people on death row.

The role of law

Every legal system in the world formally prohibits killing, in the sense of one human causing the death of another. If we want to solve these problems, that is a great start. But there is a lot of legal work to do. Two main kinds of legal reform are necessary.

The first is to end the death penalty universally. That is not as difficult as it sounds. The leaders of China and the US could together decide to do it tomorrow, if they wanted. After that, most other countries that still have the death penalty would be under pressure to follow.

The second urgent legal reform is to clarify that climate change is primarily about the right to life of today's children and future generations. To legally defend that right, we must identify and prosecute those who are causing the greatest numbers of future deaths.

Killing is never justified except in self-defense. Therefore, and given that our values are primarily based on the value of human lives, preventing killing is the most important goal of law. It follows from this, again purely logically, that the law must identify those people who are doing the most killing today, that is, those who are responsible for the largest numbers of premature human deaths, and prevent them from doing that. Today, those people, as I explained in detail in my 2012 text (and the arguments were basically correct), are the most influential climate deniers.

The death penalty obviously achieves nothing. But other more appropriate forms of punishment can achieve a lot. It is certainly a good idea to restrict the freedom of people whose actions are causing millions of future deaths. And nothing could be more important that actually doing that. If we don't, we (or our children) will likely pay the ultimate price, which is human extinction and the destruction of absolutely everything that we hold dear.

The point is not just to say these things, but to act on them. To my knowledge, the legal profession is still essentially silent on this issue. Like almost everyone else, legal scholars are in denial about the existential consequences of climate change. I may be wrong--I am not a lawyer or legal scholar, so I don't know the detail and I'm not involved in relevant discussions.

The contradictions in my text

My 2012 text addressed existential issues of this kind, but failed to explain some points clearly. My thoughts were heading in the right direction, but the text was work in progress, and I was working entirely alone.

A few sentences in my text were carelessly formulated,
for which I apologized. These were the sentences upon which the deniers pounced and cited out of context. Their goal was to destroy my reputation, just as deniers regularly try to destroy the reputations of climate scientists who are courageous enough to speak the truth about climate change in public.

Amazingly, countless intelligent, kind, well-informed people were fooled by the arguments of the deniers. Those people could easily have seen the contradictions in my original text and asked themselves why they were there. They could also have asked themselves why I deleted and withdrew the text. I deleted it as soon as the first complaints arrived. It didn't know about Google Cache and could not prevent the subsequent re-appearance of the text in the internet.

The biggest issue

Allow me to repeat the main issues in different words.

Climate change and its many interacting negative consequences will probably cause the premature deaths of a billion people (mostly children living right now) and all but destroy most developing and tropical countries. There has never been a bigger risk. If humanity survives climate change, we will look back and say there was never a bigger tragedy. Today, Holocaust comparisons are taboo; in future, climate change comparisons will be taboo.


Today, when people in all walks of life (researchers, politicians, business people, general public including children) talk about the threat of climate change, they talk about the effect on ecological, economic, political, and social systems, all which are enormously important. But the fatal consequences for hundreds of millions of people is even more important, and we are still carefully avoiding the topic as if those people did not exist or did not matter.

On top of that, thousands of people all over the world are publicly lying about climate change and its causes. For decades, this unprecedented criminal culture of truth distortion has been preventing the world from responding constructively, creating a global existential crisis.

The law is supposed to protect the public from dangerous people, but the influential climate deniers -- perhaps the most dangerous criminals of all time -- are not being tried and punished. On the contrary, they are often handsomely rewarded for their efforts by the fossil fuel industry.
Enormous numbers of lives could be saved if the International Criminal Court tried the most influential climate deniers and jailed those who were found guilty of crimes against humanity. But the law currently does not even recognize influential climate denial as a crime.

The role of poverty

Why is climate denial so dangerous? The reason has to do with poverty. The most common cause of premature death in coming decades and centuries will be a combination of two main factors: climate change and poverty. People with money will probably be able to adapt. Others will not, with often fatal consequences.

Every day, over 10,000 children die in poverty in developing countries (more). They usually die of hunger or disease, but the ultimate cause is an unfair global economic system. 
Every single death is a tragedy. It puts things in perspective to get up in the morning and think of those 10,000 children who will die today. How do their 10,000 mothers and 10,000 fathers feel about that? How do we, the readers of this text, feel about it?

This is happening for two reasons.
So it boils down to basic childhood skills: honesty and sharing. We adults are supposed to teach these skills to our children, but since the rise of "Fridays for Future", our children our trying to teach them to us.

Global poverty is a problem that can and could be solved. The United Nations and many other organizations are working hard on it (more). But as long as we elect politicians that allow tax havens to exist (more) and corporations to have more power than governments (more), the forces preventing progress will be bigger than the forces promoting it.

Climate change is another problem that can and could be solved, and many organizations are working hard on it, but politicians, corporations, the global rich, and widespread apathy are standing in the way.
Again, honesty and sharing are lacking.

Poverty and climate change: A deadly combination

The current global death rate in connection with poverty will probably double toward the end of the century due to climate change. It is hard to see what else could happen, given the number and diversity of disastrous predictions in mainstream peer-reviewed scientific journals.

If this assumption is correct, our current emissions are killing 10,000 additional future children every day. In fact, today's greenhouse emissions are probably killing many more future people than that -- perhaps 10 million per year (more).
I am using the word “kill” in the neutral sense of “causing death”, regardless of intention.

In other words: our dishonesty, negligence, and indifference are killing 20 million people per year. Of those, 10 million per year are dying now as a consequence of preventable poverty, and 10 million will die in the future as a consequence of preventable climate change combined with preventable poverty. The sum of these two contributions exceeds the death rate due to violence during the Second World War.

For those of us who regard human lives as our greatest good and every life as equally valuable, this is the world's biggest problem. But it is carefully suppressed, even by those with a "global outlook". On the whole, not even the "lefties" and "greenies" are talking about the future death toll from climate change.

What can we do about that? One option is to attract attention to the basic rights of vulnerable people and how they are being trashed by the global rich, the political right, and the climate deniers. Today, anyone can write a text on that topic, put it in the internet, and send it to social media. Anyone can write about the hypocrisy of a global economic system that likes to talk about human rights and carefully protects the rights of the rich while at the same time quietly ignoring massive rights violations. Anyone can write about the mega-deadly consequences of our greed and indifference.

The difference between a question mark and an exclamation mark


In the last days of 2012, sensationalist media reported that I had "called for" the death penalty for (influential) climate deniers. But my text clearly had a different aim: to defend the basic human rights of countless millions of people, given that

hundreds of millions of people may die from starvation or disease in future famines. Moreover, an unknown number may die from wars over diminishing resources

To attract attention and ruffle some feathers, I chose a deliberately misleading title: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?" People of diverse political colors and stripes pretended not to have seen the question mark and responded as if it had been an explanation mark. 

But the answer to the question in the title was clearly stated in the text. I had clarified my total opposition to the death penalty at three different points:

I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist, expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and China will come to their senses soon.

Even mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him, that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a logical argument.

Please note that I am not directly suggesting that the threat of execution be carried out. I am simply presenting a logical argument. I am neither a politician nor a lawyer. I am just thinking aloud about an important problem.

I repeatedly questioned my own arguments, and the ironic, satirical flavour of the conclusion implied that the whole text was to be taken with a grain of salt. 

People will be saying that Parncutt has finally lost it. But there is already enough evidence on the table to allow me to make the following prediction: If someone found this document in the year 2050 and published it, it would find general support and admiration. People would say I was courageous to write the truth, for a change. Who knows, perhaps the Pope would even turn me into a saint. Presumably there will still be a Pope, and maybe by then he will even have realised that condoms are not such a bad thing!

The text implied two further links between climate change and the death penalty without stating them directly:

I totally oppose the death penalty in every conceivable case and I always have. But here’s the thing: if the world had agreed to limit the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths, as I proposed in 2012, two big problems would have been solved. First, all criminals currently on death row in all countries would have had their sentences commuted. Second, the International Criminal Court would have tried the most influential climate deniers; as always in the ICC, punishment would have been limited to life imprisonment. If that project had been successful, we might have celebrated two victories at once: the end of the death penalty and the end of influential climate denial. Denial would have gone underground. Projects to limit global emissions would finally have had a chance.

In that case, and assuming that climate denial is the biggest hurdle standing in the way of climate action (and has been for decades), the threat of human extinction would have become much smaller.
We would now be well on the way to getting climate change under control.

In short, if humanity is to survive with a reasonable quality of life, here is what needs to be done:
  1. End the death penalty completely worldwide.
  2. Try influential deniers for crimes against humanity. 
  3. Jail the guilty. 
After all, the following points are surely beyond question:
  1. The value of a human life is our most important value.
  2. Modern climate change is mainly caused by humans.
  3. Some people are contributing much more to the problem than others.
  4. Climate change will cause hundreds of millions of premature deaths -- perhaps billions (more).
  5. The most influential climate deniers know that their actions are causing enormous amounts of future death and suffering.
It’s not too late to start addressing these issues legally, but it soon will be. We don't have much time.

Why totally oppose the death penalty?

I oppose the death penalty in all cases for the usual, well-known reasons. One reason is that killing is justified only in self-defence, to save one's life or the life of others from an immediate threat. The death penalty is not self-defence; it is legalized, premeditated killing.


The death penalty is not a solution to anything. You don't stop the killing by participating in it. This principle applies to the punishment of all crimes, including the worst ever. Following the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46, ten prominent Nazis were hanged, although they could equally have been jailed for life. The death penalty achieved nothing except to continue the cycle of killing that the Nuremberg trials were supposed to stop.


Another reason to unconditionally reject the death penalty is the inconsistency of arguments used by death-penalty fans. Many want the death penalty in response to the most serious crimes, but the most serious crimes are not even recognized as such, let alone punished. From a human-rights perspective, the biggest crime of all is to cause the death of an enormous number of people.
That happens frighteningly often, and my "scandalous" text offered a series of examples. According to this criterion, the most influential climate deniers are the worst criminals of all time.

It is remarkable thing that many death-penalty advocates are also climate deniers. Many such people are members of the US Republican Party, for example. How can you support the death penalty for the most serious crimes, while at the same time contributing to what might be the most serious crime of all time? My strong recommendation to those people is to consider their own interests and change their views on both topics, urgently. In case the penny has not yet dropped, let me spell it out. Philosophers like to make the following logical connection: if (i) all men are mortal and (ii) Socrates is a man, therefore (iii) Socrates is mortal. If you think (i) the death penalty is justified for the biggest crimes, and (ii) you are committing one of the biggest crimes, (iii) what conclusion might we draw from that? And whose idea was that, originally? It certainly wasn't mine. This contradiction has been out there for decades.

Some argue that the death penalty is needed as a deterrent, but empirical evidence is lacking. The death penalty is not effective at deterring murder, which often happens in anger. I
n the moment, murderers may forget about the consequences. Moreover, potential murderers are not necessarily more afraid of death than of life imprisonment. These are well-known reasons for ending the death penalty forever (more). Influential climate deniers are a different case. They may work deliberately and carefully, and they may be well informed and have plenty of time to consider the consequences of their actions. But they are still unlikely to risk either the death penalty or life imprisonment. While the threat of imprisonment might achieve a lot, relative to that, the death penalty would achieve nothing. 

The trolley problem

My statement was related to the trolley problem in ethics. Is it ok to kill one person to save the lives of five people? If a runaway trolley (train carriage) is about to run over and kill five innocent people, is it ok to divert the train onto another track, where it will run over and kill only one, or is it ok to push one person onto the track in front of the trolley, sacrificing one life to save five? Is a person who does something like that "evil"? Is a person who agrees that it is ok to do something like that "evil"? Or is it the other way round -- is a person who fails to do that (or disagrees with doing that) "evil"? There is no clear answer to this question, but the disagreement does suggest that killing someone is about five times worse that failing to take reasonable action to prevent someone's death.

The trolley problem was implied when I wrote "I wish to claim that it is generally ok to kill someone in order to save one million people". This sentence, as formulated, is obviously true, because the number one million is so much bigger than the number five.
When it comes to defending the right to life of a million people we have to remember that every single person has the same inherent dignity and the same right to live. Multiply that by a million and you have an enormous problem. But even that doesn't justify the death penalty for mass murderers, because the death penalty is never justified (for the usual reasons). A prisoner can reliably be prevented from causing any (further) harm simply by keeping him or her in prison. No further action is needed.

Foundations of 21st-century ethics

For those readers who take issue with aspects of these arguments, allow me to formulate some basic assumptions before we proceed:
My background

Since I became aware of the legal and ethical problems surrounding the death penalty in the 1980s, I have opposed it unconditionally. Since the 1990s, I have been a member of Amnesty International, first in the UK and then in Austria. During that time, I have participated in countless urgent actions and letter writing campaigns to stop the death penalty in different countries -- both in specific cases and universally. From 1999 to 2010 my yearly donation to Amnesty Austria was €87,20 (converted from Austrian shillings), and since 2011, I have donated €100 Euros per year. Amnesty is more important today than ever. We need your support. Please consider a yearly donation.


From 2000 to 2010, I became increasingly aware of a basic ethical problem. What is more important to me personally -- the basic rights of a billion children in developing countries, or my personal well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by risking my well-being, would I do it? Hopefully I am not the only one asking that question.

So I became
politically active in the area of interculturality and human rights (more). The aim was to reduce racism and xenophobia by applying insights and findings from research in contrasting academic disciplines and collaborating with practitioners in NGOs, government, education and so on. The project culminated in an international conference that inspired a second conference and diverse later projects. I was also increasingly interested in world hunger and child mortality and the astonishing tendency of rich countries to pretend this is not happening or to underestimate the ethical consequences.

But I can only do this work of this kind in my limited spare time. So I decided to identify today's most important issues on focus on them (more). And here's what I realized: If human lives are the foundation of our value system and every human life is equally valuable, the problem of premature mortality is even more serious than everyday racism. But premature mortality is itself about racism, because most of the victims are or will be black. 

The aim of my text

Many people agree that climate change is today's biggest issue, but if you ask why, you will get different answers, for example:
These are extremely serious issues. No question about that. But from a human-rights perspective, none of them is the main reason. The main reason is that climate change will cause hundreds of millions of premature deaths. Perhaps billions. 

Given this background, my main intention in 2012 (and it was clear from the first page of my text) was to defend the right to life of those countless millions of people who will suffer most from climate change. In the public discussion that followed, hardly anyone mentioned that point, as if those people in developing countries did not exist or did not matter.
Today, little has changed. How much longer do we have to wait for the right to life of a billion people in developing countries to be taken seriously?

I later realised that I had intuitively applied a series of known techniques for attracting attention with headings (more). My heading was short, concise, and understandable out of context. It started with powerful keywords, addressed important current issues, asked a question, excited curiosity, and both surprised and frightened the reader. I had chosen a provocative title and taken a personal risk to attract attention to a series of critically important issues that were evidently being suppressed. How many deaths will climate change cause, especially in developing countries? Who will be held responsible? What will be the legal consequences? Today, Extinction Rebellion is again exploring radical, unconventional, personal-risk-taking ways of attracting attention to the world’s most serious problem. Needless to say, I belong to their strongest supporters.

The following headings would have been more appropriate:
But if I had written that, no-one would have noticed. As it happened, many people read no further than my heading. In fact, some did not even read to the end of the heading! We live and learn.

My statement was deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand I explained in detail why the death penalty is never justified. On the other; I proposed limiting the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths, and explored the consequences. The purpose of this contradiction was to attract attention to the world's most important issue from a human-rights perspective and start a public discussion.

The strategy was successful. Many people announced their total opposition to the death penalty and started talking about human rights. Some did this in public for the first time. In retrospect, that made the accompanying threats, defamation, and cyberbullying seem worthwhile. I realised later that every self-righteous person who presented me as "evil" was a small victory for human rights, even if those people had misunderstood my central message.

A billion human lives

Climate change is not only about polar bears and coral reefs. Of course polar bears and coral reefs are very important. Enormously important. But climate change is also threatening the lives of a billion people. It could kill 100 million people by 2030 and many more in the long term.

The rising CO2 concentration of the earth's atmosphere, the laws of physics, the world's burgeoning human population, and the well-known multiple consequences of global warming for humans -- all of that taken together -- will probably mean premature death for a billion people over the next century. What happens after that is anybody's guess.

That is true even if global emissions fall rapidly in coming years and warming is limited to 2°C. Beyond that, every additional degree Celcius
could (over a long period) kill an additional billion people. 

The number one billion is a rough, order-of-magnitude estimate. It comprises hundreds of millions of children who are alive right now in developing countries and further hundreds of millions who will be born in coming decades. These people will die early (as infants, children or young adults) with a certain (shockingly high) probability as a result one or more of the known side-effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, freak storms, changing precipitation patterns, disappearing glaciers affecting water supplies, ocean acidification, more frequent bushfires, loss of biodiversity and so on. The list is long. Many of these side effects will reduce food supplies, causing famines.

Today, about 10 million people are dying prematurely each year because they are living in poverty. Without poverty, they would not die early. This number has been steadily decreasing in recent decades due to economic growth and international development projects. It is now presumably as small as it will ever get. The rate of premature mortality in connection with poverty will increase steadily from now on, for at least the next century, due to climate change.

At the start of my text (in the third paragraph, after two short introductory paragraphs) I had written that

When the earth's temperature rises on average by more than two degrees, interactions between different consequences of global warming (reduction in the area of arable land, unexpected crop failures, extinction of diverse plant and animal species) combined with increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die from starvation or disease in future famines.

Soon after that came this passage:

Even without global warming (GW) (or ignoring the small amount that has happened so far), a billion people are living in poverty right now. Every five seconds a child is dying of hunger (more).The United Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making some progress. But political forces in the other direction are stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.

Right across the political spectrum people responding to my text acted as if they had missed these central points. Today, we are still treating billions of human lives as unimportant by comparison to the right of rich countries to burn as much fossil fuel as we want.

That is not an empty claim. I have evidence. Many readers found the following passage especially shocking:

I don't want to be a saint. I would just like my grandchildren and great grandchildren, and the human race in general, to enjoy the world that I have enjoyed, as much as I have enjoyed it. And to achieve that goal I think it is justified for a few heads to roll. Does that make me crazy? I don't think so. I am certainly far less crazy than those people today who are in favor of the death penalty for everyday cases of murder, in my opinion.

I had chosen the expression "heads will roll" for its ambiguity. It normally means that some people will be severely punished. It seldom actually refers to the death penalty. I had already explained that the death penalty is never justified and never achieves anything. For those who thought of the death penalty while reading this, I was presenting a logical argument. Those who objected to the argument were treating the life of one western middle class person (a convicted denier) as more important than the lives of a million people in developing countries (future victims of global warming). A million! Lurking behind this reaction is a psychological phenomenon called implicit racism, which allows us rich white people to ignore the enormous and continuing death toll in developing countries in connection with hunger and preventable disease and get on with our everyday lives (in paradise, as Phil Collins sang).

T
he lives of a billion children now living in developing countries will really be cut short by global warming. I am not exaggerating. Doubters should visit the IPCC homepage and read in detail about the modern world's most important issue. Read the 2018 report about the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. Ask yourself: What will happen in countries that already have a hunger problem when population increases at the same time as the food supply decreases? What will happen to hundreds of millions of climate refugees, forced to move by water wars or rising seas, when other countries refuse to accept them? What will happen when climate change indirectly causes old diseases to migrate or new diseases to emerge from the melting permafrost? And so on. The list is long.

If we don't start talking about this, the victims of our cowardly silence will be our children and grandchildren, after we die of old age -- still pretending to be innocent. The question, then, is whether we care about our children and grandchildren or not. If we care, we have some work to do. If we do nothing, we evidently don't care.

Climate change and human rights

Climate change is today's biggest human rights issue, because it will seriously affect or kill more people than any other category of human-rights violation. The converse is also true: human rights are the most important climate-change issue.

You wouldn't know that from the public discourse about climate change, which often focuses on money. How much will it cost to reduce emissions? How many jobs will be lost? How much will climate change cost us in the future? What about economic growth? 

Discourse about human rights similarly avoids climate change. Often, it focuses on individuals. Of course it is essential to apply international pressure to free prisoners of conscience and commute death sentences, again and again, for as long as it takes. That's what we do in Amnesty International. But it is also necessary, and even more important due to the enormous numbers of affected people, to consider the basic rights of unidentified climate change victims. As Amnesty emphasizes, every person has the same inherent value, independent of skin color, gender, age, public profile, legal record and so on. Needless to say, this principle applies to influential climate deniers in the same way as it applies to millions of peasant farmers in Bangladesh whose livelihood is threatened by rising sea levels, to give one of many possible examples.


In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not happening. We are in denial about both poverty and climate. The good news is that the preventable child mortality rate has been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is that climate change will make it increase again and could double it by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly from common knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in connection with climate change. Instead we are talking about other aspects of climate change -- or avoiding the topic altogether.

Just because the future death rate is hard to predict doesn't mean we should ignore it!

Climate change is also racist, affecting black people more than white, although being caused by white people more than black. It will affect women more than men and children more than adults, making it sexist and agist. 


Human rights are universal. The right to life is obviously the most important right; this point is unfortunately missing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), presumably due to an ambiguity about the death penalty that remains to this day. What is clear is that everyone has the right to life, rich or poor, black or white, adult or child, man or woman, guilty or innocent. Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as the children currently living in poverty in developing countries whose future lives could be destroyed by climate change.

This message has evidently not sunk in, because still today in 2019 hardly anyone is talking about the right to life of a billion people. Since 2012, many have become more aware of the urgency of climate change. But there is still precious little literature or public discussion about long-term future death tolls, nor is there much willingness in the academic community to address this issue. I experienced this when trying to publish an article on that topic in different relevant journals. 

Why are people are not talking about the right to life of a billion people? Perhaps they disagree with the following two sentences? Every person in the world, whether black or white, female or male, young or old, poor or rich, guilty or innocent, has the same right to live. Even influential climate deniers who indirectly kill millions of people by blocking climate solutions have the same right to live. From today's perspective, even the executions that followed the Nuremburg trials in 1946 were not justified, although the Holocaust was clearly the worst crime in history. The death penalty is never justified.

Is climate change a form of genocide? The short answer is no, but the comparison is important. Climate change is even worse than genocide in the sense that it will probably cause hundreds or even thousands more deaths than a typical genocide case. But it is not as bad as genocide in the sense that the main actors (the influential climate deniers) do not intend to kill anyone. They are merely criminally negligent. From a human-rights perspective, there has never been a worse case of criminal negligence. From my original text:

... the GW deniers would point out straight away that they don't intend to kill anyone. ... The GW deniers are simply of the opinion that the GW scientists are wrong. ... [They are] enjoying their freedom of speech and perhaps they sincerely believe what they are claiming. They can certainly cite lots of evidence (you can find evidence for just about anything if you look hard enough).

The only thing that could be worse than climate change, as it will probably develop during the coming century, is human extinction. Human extinction is possible (and increasingly likely) if climate change gets out of control, that is, if global mean surface temperature starts to increase of its own accord due to climate feedbacks, with no help from human emissions. Which is a good reason to wake people up with a scandalous statement.


Climate denial and the death penalty 

Noam Chomsky has rightly described as the US Republican party as the world's most dangerous organisation, mainly because of its contribution to global climate change. But his claim would be true even if we considered only US militarism. US forces have bombed 24 countries since 1945 (here is a map), killing untold millions of civilians, and pushed mainly (not only) by Republicans in the background. If you are looking for an example of the most sinister and hypocritical modern evil, here it is.

Those Republicans who claim to be Christian should get out their Bibles and read what Jesus said and did. Read about humility, egalitarianism, and caring for other people, especially those who suffer from poverty, illness, or discrimination. Read about telling the truth and exposing hypocrisy. Read about living simply and eschewing luxury. Read about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and pacifism. Jesus probably had olive-colored skin and was himself a victim of the death penalty.

Roughly every second US-American is a death penalty supporter (more). In 2012, roughly the same proportion were climate deniers (depending on definition); the proportion has fallen since then, but is still shockingly high. Probably much the same applies to the whole world. It follows that many of my numerous critics were death penalty supporters themselves, falling somewhat embarrassingly into the additional trap of hypocrisy. These commentators deliberately ignored the paragraph where I explained in detail why the death penalty is never justified. Instead, they scandalized my thought experiment about the death penalty for one climate denier, as if that were more important than the premature deaths of a million people due to climate change.

The death penalty is racist, at least in the USA, because the proportion of black victims is greater than the proportion of black people in the general population. My statement was also about racism. The climate denier in my fictional scenario was presumably white;  the victims were presumably black. If you wanted indirect confirmation that racism, like sexism, is almost everywhere in the hidden assumptions of people of all political persuations, the public discussion that followed the discovery of my text was a startling new piece of evidence (more). For some people, it seems, one white life is more valuable than a million black lives. A million!

The question I asked in my scandalous text could be rephrased like this: Are influential climate deniers death-penalty candidates according to the logic of 
100 million American death-penalty supporters? I implied this question for two reasons: first, to expose an inherent flaw in the arguments of those people (and many other people all over the world), and second (and more importantly) to protect the right to life of a billion children in developing countries.

Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as each one of those billion children. But contrary to their wild claims, the deniers are not in danger, nor did my text pose the slightest danger to anyone. I was quite sure of that when I wrote it:

Courageous or evil? Perpetrator or victim?

Most responses to my text fell into two categories. Total strangers who care about the future of our children wrote to me confirming that the accusations were false, thanking me for my courageous contribution, and regretting the "shitstorm" (a new word for me). Other total strangers who evidently do not jumped at the chance to present themselves as victims and someone else as the villain. In other words, they tried to reverse the perpetrator-victim relationship. As I later found out, many of them were already experienced players of this game.

In fact, I was neither perpetrator nor victim. As far as climate change is concerned,
If these two points (both of them!) and their implications were widely recognized, we would be moving faster toward a solution.

I was standing on the sidelines, trying to tell the truth about this unfolding 21st-century tragedy and thinking aloud about possible solutions. That's not always easy in a media environment that is so deeply infected by "fake news".

Meanwhile, the media seemed to be obsessed with my guilt or innocence. Was I evil? Should I be allowed to teach innocent students?

In fact, the only "crime" I had committed was to defend the right to life of a billion people. I had also considered how this goal could really be achieved in practice. For that purpose, we need to ask difficult questions about the social and political forces that are driving climate change, and consequently how many future deaths influential climate deniers are causing. From a human-rights perspective, these are today's biggest legal issues, yet they continue to be ignored. My crime was to dare to write about a taboo topic.


Climate death row


What does the death penalty have to do with climate change?

I proposed that, if the death penalty was limited (by global agreement) to individuals who knowingly cause a million deaths, some of the most influential climate deniers would become candidates.
At the same time, all prisoners on all death rows in all countries would be released. I don't recall seeing any discussion of this idea -- whether in the media, the internet, or the emails I received. I will return to it below.
There is another reason why I included this horror scenario in my text. Every person whose future life is threatened by climate change is effectively on death row. This applies in particular to a billion innocent children in developing countries. Unlike the influential climate deniers in my fictitious death-penalty scenario, whose lives are not in the slightest danger, those children really will die prematurely. Our emissions really are killing them. Where is the outcry about that?

In this way, the death penalty and climate change are related political/moral issues. If we are genuine about our intention to promote universal human rights, we should dare to compare. If we want to end the death penalty everywhere, we also have to save a billion innocent children from climate death row.

Climate death is similar to the death penalty in other ways. Perhaps the most obvious is this: When climate change victims die, their death is anthropogenic (caused by humans). Another similarity involves the probability of premature death. The uncertainty of the death penalty is a cruel aspect of this archaic form of punishment. US prisoners on death row typically wait for ten years (more). Many people in climate-vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh (and many other developing countries) will wait for a similar period for the day when they become climate refugees, not knowing where if anywhere they will live in future, or if they will survive the journey. So which is worse?
To my knowledge, the answer is neither. From the victim's viewpoint, premature death is always horrific.

That being the case, we can now compare the human cost of the death penalty with the human cost of poverty and climate change. The public response to my 2012 text suggested that the average person considers the death penalty to be a more serious problem than either poverty or climate change. The public discussion focused on the death penalty, although I had written at length about all three issues, starting with poverty and climate change.

In fact, for those of us who consider every human life to be equally valuable, poverty and climate change are even more serious issues than the death penalty. In order-of-magnitude estimates, over the coming century perhaps 100,000 people will die prematurely as a result of the death penalty (currently perhaps 1000 per year in China alone). That is profoundly and incomprehensibly schocking, but the human cost of poverty and climate change is much more so. During the same period, perhaps a billion people (10m/year) will die prematurely in connection with poverty, even in the absence of climate change. Perhaps a further billion will die prematurely as a result of climate change. That makes the global human cost of poverty and climate change 10,000 times bigger than the global human cost of the death penalty!

The death penalty is certainly a bigger crime than poverty or climate change because of the premeditated intention to kill. Those who are contributing most to poverty and climate change are merely being negligent and do not intent to kill anyone. But the climate deniers and fossil-fuel CEOs are also fully informed about the consequences of their actions and are proceeding anyway.
Moreover, from a global perspective the mortal consequences of poverty and climate change are much, much worse than the mortal consequences of the death penalty. To what extent might "mass murderer" might be an appropriate term under these circumstances? 

Climate change will also cause an enormous number of species to go extinct. They too are on death row. There is a real danger that homo sapiens will be one of those species. If so, climate change could be a death sentence for humanity.

If we took that threat seriously, we might be more serious about cutting emissions. A more likely scenario is that people with more money will survive, whereas those with less money will perish. Again, that can only mean one thing: cut all emissions urgently.

The main point of this discussion is to protect the right to life of a billion children in developing countries. If we want to protect their rights, we have to prevent actions that are threatening them. To do that, we have to attract attention to the problem and present convincing arguments. If almost everyone is ignoring the rights of a billion children -- and that is really what is happening, still today -- it is appropriate and necessary to shock people into waking up.


What I am really "calling for"

I don't know how many media reported that I had "called for" the death penalty for climate deniers. Both climate deniers and sensational media had an interest in exaggerating my message. Some German-language media even used the word Forderung (demand). I guess they were desperate to sell newspapers.

That was not the only exaggeration. Some deniers claimed that I wanted to "kill all deniers". In fact, I had proposed saving untold millions of lives by means of a legal procedure that was confined to the most influential deniers. In practice, a legal procedure of that kind would have resulted in nothing worse than fines, jail sentences, and public embarrassment.

Perhaps the most serious distortion was to avoid the main issue -- the deadly risk that climate change poses for a billion people. Although this point was clear from my text, it was ignored as if those people did not exist. Hardy anyone seems to have realized that our emissions are putting hundreds of millions of people on climate-death row, and that this problem is even bigger than the death penalty, simply because the numbers are so enormous.

After that, something even more remarkable happened. Countless people (often with good education and good intentions) took the hysterical claims of the deniers and sensationalist media seriously. They did that without referring to my original document, or without reading it carefully. They even ignored my first page, in which I explained my motivation.

Those well-meaning people also failed to realize how astonishingly unscrupulous and dangerous influential climate deniers can be. What do you do with people who are prepared to risk the lives of untold millions of people (and perhaps all of humanity) to protect their short-term financial interests? From a human-rights perspective, influential climate deniers are up there with the worst criminals of all time. I thought people knew that; they should at least have realized it after reading my text. Evidently, many or most did not. The deniers' exaggerated, misleading interpretations were repeated by the media and even academic commentators as if they were true -- as if deniers were a reliable source of information.

Those who actually read my 2012 text know that it did not directly "call for" anything. I had chosen my words carefully. I had repeatedly used the word "propose", implying an invitation to discuss
(French: pro + poser). This intention was correctly recognized by Austria Presse Agentur (link), whose report was entitled "Uni-Professor stellt Todesstrafe zur Diskussion" (university professor puts the death penalty up for discussion / raises issues about the death penalty). After all, there is a difference between "proposing" marriage and "calling for" it. A chef who "proposes" a delicious dessert is not demanding that customers eat it. An academic who writes a "research proposal" is offering some interesting ideas and claiming that they have potential -- not telling a grant agency to fund the project.

The text you are now reading is different. 
 I am now calling for several things.

First, the International Criminal Court should identify and try the most influential climate deniers. If found guilty of the charge of indirectly causing millions of future deaths, they should be jailed for life, to secure what is left of justice for untold future millions of climate victims and systematically suppress climate-denial culture.
As I wrote:

This page is inspired by the project Establishing Crimes Against Future Generations by the World Future Council. Please support the work of the World Future Council!

From a scientific viewpoint, there is no doubt that influential climate deniers are indirectly causing millions of premature deaths in the future. That could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law by inviting expert witnesses to provide opinion and evidence within their area of expertise.

Until now, convictions of murder or manslaughter have only been possible if
Climate justice demands that these traditional restrictions be lifted. That would have important and possibly far-reaching implications for theories of justice, including natural law, social contract, utilitarianism, consequentialism, distributive justice,  property rights, and reparative justice.

But we don't have time for a long, complex, abstract, academic discussion. We can't wait until the end of civilisation before realising that the most influential climate deniers are among the most guilty people in all of human history and finally deciding to convict them. At that late stage, the legal profession (or what is left of it) will have other things to worry about.

More generally, I am "calling for" the following:
We need more honesty, compassion, and political will. We need to decide to address the problem seriously, at last. Are we capable of making an honest decision and sticking to it? If millions of individuals make the right decision, the problem can be solved. Only then will the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of forest, and the production of meat and concrete rapidly slow down and approach zero.

A solution that takes human rights seriously will mean fast economic changes that bring global economic turbulence. But nothing can be more turbulent than what climate change will bring later this century. From that viewpoint, these are reachable goals. It's no longer a question of research to reach them. We now understand the physics, chemistry, biology, geology, technology, economics, psychology, and sociology of climate change in great detail.

What is a climate denier?

My 2012 text included a link to "desmogblog". The intention was to clarify the concepts "climate denial" and "climate denier" by providing examples. This was necessary because the terms are used in different ways, as I will explain below. Incidentally, I have never had any kind of contact of any kind with anyone involved in desmogblog -- neither before nor after my 2012 text. I simply found their page in the internet.

Climate deniers are experts in the art of lying and truth distortion. They deliberately misinterpreted my link to desmogblog, claiming that the link turned my text into a "death threat". The people listed by desmogblog, they claimed, were the designated victims.

Needless to say, that was patently absurd -- typical denialist nonsense. My clearly and repeatedly stated proposal was to limit the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths. This idea can only apply to the most influential climate deniers. At the most, only a handful of deniers
listed by desmogblog could possibly fall into this category. Moreover, there is a big difference between making a death threat and discussing a possible legal procedure. In any case, it was only a link. Give me a break.

So what is a climate denier, in fact? Like autism, climate denial is a spectrum. Unlike autism, most people are on the spectrum, somewhere.

Most people reading this text are climate deniers in the weak sense of not doing anything significant to reduce their personal carbon footprint or that of people in their sphere of influence, or not supporting climate action on a political level. I was a climate denier of this kind for a long time and I have a big lifespan carbon footprint. We are acting as if climate change was not happening, was not caused by humans, or was not an existential threat to humanity. We pretend not to know that the golden age of human civilization is drawing to a close and things will probably get incrementally worse on a global scale every decade for the next century. We realise, but refuse to admit, that our present extravagence and indifference is causing the future suffering of our own children. The science is speaking, but we are not listening. We are sleepwalking into catastrophe.

A smaller number of people are climate deniers in the strong sense of publicly claiming that climate change is not happening, not caused by humans, or not an existential threat. An even smaller number are influential climate deniers who promote the burning of fossil fuels or prevent climate action from happening, and thereby indirectly cause enormous suffering in the future, especially in tropical and developing countries where people are particularly vulnerable.

For decades, influential climate deniers have been threatening the basic rights of all people everywhere. Motivated by personal financial gain, they have been preventing progress toward climate solutions by suppressing important scientific information, confusing the public, and hindering progress at global climate talks.

My 2012 text was not about all climate deniers, however defined. It was only about influential climate deniers -- specifically, those influential enough to cause a million deaths. More generally, I was talking about anyone who might by any means cause a million deaths. Those who wanted to misrepresent me intentionally got this wrong and pretended I wanted to "kill all deniers".


Given what we know about the main causes and effects of climate change, a single influential climate denier could indirectly kill a million future people. By "kill" I mean "cause death" or "end lives prematurely".
Thought experiment: What if the number was exactly one million? What if we knew them all by name? According to universally accepted principles of human rights, every one of those 1,000,001 people (including our climate denier) would have the same inherent value and the same inalienable rights. Not one of those people would deserve to die prematurely.

Who is guilty? Who is racist? The ethics of evil

The outraged climate deniers, and many others who fell into the trap of taking climate deniers seriously, eagerly presented me as evil. That was a textbook example of hypocrisy. 
In the same breath, they were ignoring the right to life of countless millions of future climate change victims in developing countries -- as if those people neither existed nor mattered. What could be more evil than that?

The right to life of those people was obviously what my text was about (first page). Children in developing countries really are on death row: they really will die prematurely with a certain probability, and we (with our emissions and denial) are really the cause of their future deaths. When will that message get through? How loud does one have to scream before people get it?
The people who carry the most responsibility for the human consequences of climate change are the most influential climate deniers of the past few decades. If the size of a crime is measured only by the number of deaths it causes, climate change may be considered the greatest crime in human history. What punishment is appropriate for the worst criminals ever? If the death penalty is out of the question (as it should be), it is important first of all to end the death penalty everywhere. If the climate deniers of the world agreed with that, they would be at the forefront of international anti-death-penalty activism. But they are not.

Evidently, many people still haven’t clicked that Black Lives Matter. The message may have reached their heads, but it is still waiting for the journey into their hearts. As an example of how important but difficult this journey is, consider the case of the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who in late 2018 and early 2019 pushed global climate action forward like almost no one else before or since. She did that by courageously telling truth to power. I am her greatest fan. I cannot express how much gratitude I feel toward her and all the other young leaders who have recently emerged in the struggle for humanity's future. But even Greta's truth was incomplete, because even she had not (at the time of writing) mentioned the main future victims of climate change, namely children in developing countries. 

What actually happened

When I made the final changes to my blog in October 2012, there are several important things that I did not know or could not anticipate:
I deleted and apologized for the blog as soon as the first complaints started to arrive just before Christmas 2012. In retrospect, that was inappropriate. How can one apologize for defending the right to life of a billion people?

I apologized not only because of the wild, crazy accusations of the deniers, but also because of the ambiguous response from some of the smart, caring people whom I had expected to support me. Evidently, the world was not yet ready for this kind of truth. (Is it ready now?)

The deletion was in vain. The blog was discovered and posted against my will at a new address. That's how I learned that "the internet never forgets". The sensational reactions that followed in the media and climate denial blogs referred exclusively to a text that had been withdrawn and deleted.

I then became a victim of cybermobbing. In a globalized game of Chinese whispers,
in which quasi-randomly selected climate deniers and boulevard media reporters were the players, exaggerated interpretations of my text were re-exaggerated in a hysterical self-reinforcing crescendo. Climate deniers reported on their webpages that I wanted to kill them and exhorted each other to send me their thoughts by email. 

I wasn't the first to find myself in a situation of this kind. Some three years later, a well-known climate denier sent me a list of people who had suggested legal responses to climate denial, including (in his interpretation) the death penalty. Presumably they were all attacked in a similar way. The statements were dated 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012 (not including my text). Some argued that climate denial is a form of treason, for which the penalty in USA is still death (as if the Middle Ages had never ended). Others argued that influential climate denial is a crime against humanity, for which (in some interpretations, but not that of the International Criminal Court) the penalty is death.

I was accused of a shopping list of things that I never did. I should have expected that. I was criticizing deniers, and lying is what they do for a living -- on behalf of, and funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself. Many climate deniers are also experienced bullies, having attacked climate scientists in the past. The "crime" of those climate scientists, like my "crime", was to dare to tell the truth about climate change and climate denial in public, and the staggering future consequences, especially for developing countries. 

It's no wonder the deniers were upset. My blog exposed their massive guilt. They reacted by applying their carefully acquired skills in truth distortion, combining cyberbullying with victim blaming. Their attempt to make me look guilty and evil was a strategy to divert attention from their own guilt and malice. Well, they can try as hard as they like to ruin my reputation, but I am not about to give up defending the fundamental rights of a billion people. 

The uproar was surprising when you consider that I had presented an idea that most people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe, would immediately agree with: to limit the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I merely considered the implications, asking which people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were limited in this way.

Readers were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully, many people realised (perhaps even for the first time) that (i) influential climate denial is the most important social and political force behind climate change, (ii) climate change will probably indirectly kill hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, and (iii) the death penalty is never justified.  
A new formulation of this argument can be found here.

People expected me to defend myself.
I was reluctant to do so, because the lives of hundreds of millions of children in developing countries are obviously more important than my reputation. If I was going to defend anything, it was the basic rights of an enormous number of people. That is also what my self-righteous critics should have done -- and should still be doing.

A thought experiment

At the end of 2012, I guess some 200 people objected publicly to my text, claiming or assuming incorrectly that I had “called for” the death penalty for influential climate deniers. Perhaps half of them contributed to internet blogs and the other half wrote emails.

Imagine what would have happened if those 200 people had actually read my statement -- not just the title, omitting the question mark, but the whole thing. What if they had actually thought about it and understood what it was really about? Imagine those 200 light bulbs lighting up. Those 200 pennies finally dropping.

Now imagine those 200 people apologizing for their previous postings or emails and instead objecting publicly to the future premature deaths of a billion people in developing countries. Imagine them explaining the indirect causal role of influential climate deniers, but also of all residents of richer countries, in those future deaths. Imagine those 200 people understanding how we, every day, take advantage of an unfair global economic system, and on top of that emit too much greenhouse gas, and how that makes us responsible for the present and future avoidable death toll in developing countries. 

If that is hard to imagine, let's instead try to imagine just ten of those people objecting publicly to the mega-fatal future consequences of climate denial. Still hard to imagine? Perhaps just one person? This line of thought raises an interesting question: Does anyone at all care enough about this to be honest about it? Does anyone have the courage to break the ice? Or have we all secretly agreed in some kind of global conspiracy to avoid talking publicly about our guilt? 

From this brief analysis, and regarding my 2012 text as a kind of social experiment, designed to find out who if anyone has seriously considered these issues, we can now formulate our conclusions. Many people consider the life of an influential climate denier to be roughly a million times more important than the life of a person living in poverty in a developing country whose life will be shortened as a result of climate denial. A million times! We know this because most participants in the public discussion of my text were more unhappy about the possible death of an influential climate denier than the million deaths that that person apparently caused. In fact, the million victims were not even mentioned.

Now imagine asking those 200 people what they think of the following claim: Every human life has the same value, regardless of skin color, gender, wealth, age, religion, and so on. Presumably, they would all agree. Of course, they would say, it's obvious.

Are we going to start talking about this? Or do we prefer to keep our heads in the sand? An alien visitor from outer space would be astonished at the difference between what humans say about morality and what they actually do. A million to one! The hypocrisy is truly staggering,


The Catholic condom ban

The idea of "death penalty for the pope" was obviously absurd and I included it in my text only in passing, as an explanatory counterexample.
It exposed a contradiction that is inherent in the opinions of death-penalty supporters, many of whom are Christians: if the death penalty is appropriate for the most serious crimes, what are those crimes exactly? Surely anyone who has indirectly caused the deaths of milllions of people (e.g. by not ending the Catholic condom ban in the 1980s) is a candidate? Since the 1980s, over 30 million people have died from AIDS.

The discussion about Catholic paedophilia has made steady progress, although it is surely not over yet. But there has been almost no mention of the human-rights implications of the Catholic condom ban, without which millions of AIDS victims would still be alive today. Tragically, neither the church nor the general public has found the courage to talk about this openly and honestly. Denial is not the answer. The ban is presumably still indirectly causing thousands of AIDS deaths every year. The Wikipedia page on this topic is informative but biased, because so few people have the courage to defend the rights of the victims.


This is religious hypocrisy at his worst: preaching universal love while at the same time indirectly causing massive suffering and death. Christians should read their Bibles, which incidentally say nothing at all about contraception but a lot about moral courage (more), and imagine what Jesus would say about the condom ban if he was here today. 


The death penalty is another case of Christian hypocrisy that Jesus would surely have exposed. How can a modern Christian be a death-penalty supporter, as countless millions of Americans are, when (i) Christianity is supposed to be about universal love and forgiveness, and (ii) the death penalty caused the world's greatest tragedy from a Christian perspective, namely the death of Jesus? The Old Testament contains many references to the death penalty, explaining when it should be applied according to ancient laws and practices. But the whole point of Christianity is that the teachings of Christ challenged Old Testament law and exposed its hypocrisy, as a Christian internet source explains:

The New Testament does not have any specific teachings about capital punishment. However, the Old Testament ideas of punishment became secondary to Jesus' message of love and redemption. Both reward and punishment are seen as properly taking place in eternity, rather than in this life.

It's surely as simple as that? Incidentally, I may be atheist but I am neither anti-religious nor anti-Catholic.
On the contrary, my best friends and colleagues tend to have an altruistic orientation and for that reason have always included Christians. The Western music that I study in my research and perform in my spare time is a wonderful byproduct of Christian history. I acquired musical skills by performing Christian music. Moreover, I am fascinated by the richness and diversity of the world's religious rituals. Trying to understand their psychology is one of my research areas.

In recent years, Pope Francis has been defending the rights of the global poor and opposing climate change at the highest level, for which he deserves everyone's admiration and support. At the same time, he is failing to introduce urgently needed reforms. Ending the condom ban is one. More generally, all forms of discrimination, based for example on gender or sexual orientation, should be ended, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For those who believe the Bible contains absolute truth, enough evidence can be found. Many scriptures point toward gender equality. While the Bible is unclear about homosexuality, many passages oppose discrimination of any kind.

Three premises, one conclusion

The argument that I presented in 2012 can be interpreted in different ways. One approach is to consider the logical relationship between premises and conclusion. Consider the following premises:

Premise 1. About half of the people in the world still consider the death penalty to be justified for the most serious crimes. We know this from surveys; the exact proportion depends on how you ask the question. Changing their minds is one of today's great challenges.

Premise 2. The most serious crimes are those in which one person knowingly causes enormous numbers of deaths. This should be obvious from a human rights perspective, in which every life has the same value. One could also estimate the amount of suffering or the number of (quality) life-years lost, but that would not significantly change the present argument. 

Premise 3. The most influential climate deniers are causing or have caused enormous numbers of future deaths. Those deaths will occur, for example, as the future death toll in connection with poverty in developing countries rises in response to multiple side-effects of climate change. Deniers cause future deaths by hindering projects that would otherwise slow climate change. Many people reject this logic, of course, and many others have not thought about it. I have been trying in vain for years to discover valid counterarguments. 

If all three premises are true, then for those people who (erroneously) believe in the death penalty for the most serious crimes (premise 1), "death penalty for the most influential climate deniers" is merely a logical conclusion. Needless to say, I am opposed to this conclusion, because I am opposed to premise 1. In general, the conclusion can be changed if we change any one of the three premises.

Changing premise 1 means convincing death penalty supporters that the death penalty is never justified. That is the aim of anything that I have ever written about the death penalty. The outraged public reaction to my 2012 blog suggested that I made some progress. First, many climate deniers realized that the death penalty is never justified, after imagining being candidates themselves. Second, others who normally never mention human rights suddenly started to talk about them.

I don’t believe premise 2 can be questioned. From a human rights perspective, it is obviously correct, and I am not aware of any other reasonable perspective.

Nor do I believe premise 3 can be changed. The deniers will continue to deny the causal connections, of course. Their behavior is complex and resists a simple explanation. According to psychological theory of moral development, some of them are immature (selfish, dishonest, opportunist, irresponsible). Others may be gullible or lacking in skills of critical thinking. In any case, the law should expose and punish such profound examples of irresponsibility, to protect the rights of others.

However hard they try, the deniers cannot change the logical relationship between the above conclusion and premises. Nor can they blame me or anyone else for pointing this out. I did not create this situation! I could cite literature to demonstrate that all elements of the argument that I presented in 2012 existed in advance. I merely put together the pieces of the jigsaw, and then found the courage to defend the right to life of a billion people.

The legal principle of proportionality

In my scandalous blog, I proposed limiting the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths.
My whole text revolved that point. The idea was to attract attention to the massive human cost of climate change. A billion human lives are really on the line. My story about the death penalty may have been fiction, but the victims of climate change really will die prematurely.

There was an interesting twist. If such a proposal were accepted internationally, the result would probably be what we anti-death-penalty activists have been working toward for decades: the total end of the death penalty. First, all
criminals on death row in all countries would be saved. Second, faced with the possible consequences of implementing the new agreement, even hard-core death-penalty supporters would change their minds. The penny would finally drop.

Another penny might drop, too. People might finally realise that for political reasons the death penalty can never be applied according to the legal principle of proportionality in criminal law -- the idea that the size of a punishment should reflect the size of the crime. It would become clear that there are people in our midst who knowingly but indirectly cause enormous numbers of deaths, but are never prosecuted. Others are executed for smaller crimes such as murder (of one person), drug trafficking, rape, blasphemy, treason, and so on. If the death penalty is not being applied proportionally, it should not be applied at all.

My idea of limiting the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths was also based on the equal value of every human life. Therefore, you can measure the size of a crime by estimating the number of lives that it ended prematurely. Both proportionality and human value are accepted quasi-universally, so their combination should also be universally accepted. 

According to this criterion, influential climate denial is one of the few most serious crimes of all time. This realisation has very serious consequences for those many people who are both influential climate deniers and supporters of the death penalty. They have a choice: either stop denying climate change or stop supporting the death penalty. I warmly recommend doing both.

Many death penalty supporters already agree that the seriousness of a crime depends on the number of deaths caused. Some legal scholars are still proposing the death penalty as punishment for genocide (more). Others claim that the perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, "deserved" the death penalty because of the large number of people killed (168).

The trouble with these arguments is that the death penalty will not achieve anything. It will not bring the dead back to life, nor will it prevent similar tragedies in the future.
Those who support the death penalty claim that it is necessary to deter the most serious crimes, but empirical studies have provided evidence both for and against that proposition. Careful statistical analyses of relevant variables in different US states failed to find a significant effect (more).

If both the size of a crime and the size of the punishment are to be proportional to the number of people killed, and if these principles are to be applied consistently, it should be clear even to death-penalty supporters that most death sentences should be commuted. Hopefully the international discussion will begin soon. The situation could not be more urgent: according to Amnesty International, the Chinese government is still secretly killing over one thousand of its own citizens every year.

Making denial illegal

In the unprecedented case of global warming, the law seems unable to enforce natural law and defend natural rights, according to which every natural person has the same basic rights, of which the most important is the right to life. It is not possible in international law to go to court in one country and defend the right to life of a billion children in other countries. Altruism is not recognized.

But that is not the only legal problem. In general, lying is not illegal. Liars are held to be exercising their freedom of speech, which in the US is upheld by the first amendment to the constitution. The situation in Europe is only slightly better. Thus, influential climate deniers are often considered legally innocent. They have a right to disagree with the scientific consensus.

But lying is not always legal. In the USA, it is illegal to impersonate or lie to a federal agent, make a false claim, or swear a false oath (perjury). Various kinds of fraud are illegal including health care and mail. Libel and slander are also illegal. The supreme court explained that these exceptions involve knowing or reckless falsehood. That surely applies also to climate denial.

Our legal traditions may fail to recognize that
the right to life is more important than freedom of speech, and that rights can only be exercised insofar as they don't infringe other, more important rights. If "everyone is equal before the law", every human life has the same value, such that a million lives are a million times more valuable than one life. Infringements of basic rights that involve larger numbers of people (here, millions or billions) are obviously much more important than those involving smaller numbers, everyone being equal before the law. Therefore, lies such as holocaust denial or climate denial, if influential enough, should belong to the worst possible crimes. According to the principle of proportionality, they should attract the most severe punishments.

If Holocaust denial can be made illegal, so can climate denial. A legal foundation to protect the rights of children in developing countries already exists, namely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and partially implemented in many different ways in many national legal systems.

Given the overriding importance of these issues, you would expect to see a public discussion. The legal profession should be addressing these issues now, while we still have time to achieve some kind of justice. Guaranteeing the right to life should have the highest priority. This also implies, yet again, that the death penalty is never justified.

If influential climate deniers cannot be held responsible for crimes against humanity (and the legal profession has so far made little progress in that direction), then it is hard to imagine how the basic rights of a billion people can be protected. In that case, the law will have failed spectacularly.

Similar statements

I am unaware of anyone who has estimated the number of deaths that an influential climate denier can cause. However many writers have approached the topic from different directions.

Jean Ziegler has argued that every child who dies of hunger is murdered. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for his courageous and inspiring contribution, I disagree with the use of the word "murder" in this context. There is an important difference between negligence, however extreme, and murder. (The special status of the Holocaust by comparison to other massive crimes involves the premeditated nature of the killing.) But Ziegler is right that most of those dying children (and they are dying right now as I write and you read this — what could be more horrific than that?) could have been saved if we in the rich countries had bothered in the past few decades to create a fair global economic system. In the future, those children will die because right now we are not bothering to stop global warming. I guess an appropriate term for this extreme form of negligence is “indirect killing”. 

Philosopher John Nolt, author of an influential 2015 book on environmental ethics, wrote a paper in 2011 entitled “How Harmful Are the Average American's Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” in which he calculated that the emissions of the average American today are killing or seriously harming one or two future people. If that was not a wake-up call for every rich or middle-class person in every rich or almost-rich country, I don't know what it. But hardly anyone knows about this very important piece of work. Nolt should be a household name.

In her book "Merchants of Doubt", Historian Naomi Oreskes brilliantly documented the actions of past climate deniers. It will be a great day in the history of law and justice when the main culprits are tried according to the evidence that she and others have painstakingly collected. If the trial is fair, they will presumably find themselves behind bars for the rest of their lives. Oreskes should also be a household name.

In the past few years, the frequency of news reports that consider the present and future fatal consequences of climate change has been rising. That is a promising development. In an article published in September 2017, Mark Hertsgaard realized that “Climate denialism is literally killing us”. I like this article, but disagree with two points. First Hertsgaard uses the word “murder”, but the climate deniers do not intend to kill anyone. Second, the number of people who will die in the future as a result of today's climate denialism is much higher than his implied estimates. We are talking about hundreds of millions and possibly billions.

My favorite journalist is George Monbiot. A long time ago, in a discussion transcribed and published in May 2007, he said: “If We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of Millions of People to Death”. The capital letters mean the comment became the title. 

The more people have the courage to talk about this problem directly, the more it will be taken seriously. But we are still a long way from considering the true human consequences of influential climate denial.  It seems that most people are in denial about that — a form of meta-denial. We are living our lives as if this was not happening or as if we didn’t know about it. As if we were innocent.

The bottom line

In closing, allow me to make two main points.

We are talking about a billion human lives. The future victims of global warming are today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now. They are not "future generations", although of course future generations are also important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will be shortened by global warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which means our emissions are killing them, which means we are killing them. That these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If we actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial (which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and there has never been a good excuse for denying them.

This is the most important issue in current politics. If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a rational way, we see that global warming, upon which everything on this planet depends, is probably more serious that all other comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the rising wealth gap, the risk of nuclear holocaust, the risk of a genetically manipulated pandemic, loss of biodiversity and holocene extinction (the earth's sixth mass extinction event, this time caused by humans), or the implications of land degradation for future food production. 

It is time for the legal profession, and everyone else, to realise that humans need food and fresh water to survive, and global warming will irreversibly reduce both for a large proportion of the world's growing population. The result willl be the greatest tragedy humanity has every experienced.
It's not too late to prevent this mega-catastrophe, but if we are not careful, it soon will be. The way things are going, we will look back on the 2010s as the decade in which we missed the last opportunity to save ourselves.


Extracts from selected emails 

The following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the authors, from emails that I received during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily agree with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my position.

"Your argument regarding the death penalty is an extreme view but I am sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for future generations."

"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."

" ‘At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.’
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."

"I am sure you know best, that you haven't done your masterpiece with this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of whole the mankind."

"I just wanted to let you know that I think it was a really good idea to publish your thoughts on the page of the university. I saw the death penalty as a metapher for "this should have consequences", nothing else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read “god is not great”…I’m really happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one very critical topic."

"Thank you for the interesting article. It's a sad world where you can't even make a logical argument any more..."


Apart from the excerpts from emails, the opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at parncutt@gmx.at.
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